Posted by: facetothewind | July 6, 2015

The Price of “Adventurous Eating” in the Developing World

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This time I’ve really done it. Look at my belly! I look like a pregnant hairy woman and yet I weigh in at about 137 pounds. So that’s not fat. It’s gas and I’m about to lift off from my apartment and float out over Kuala Lumpur like a balloon and zoom past the Petronas Towers giving a friendly wave and a little toot. Some tourists will take a selfie with me photo-bombing by in the background. Their videos will go viral…or bacterial.

For a month I’ve been sick with diarrhea, nausea, extreme bloating, some fatigue, but curiously no fever. So I figured it was traveler’s diarrhea which is all too common in my life since I left the United States. I know TMI. Well, I finally went to the hospital and got a battery of tests done last Friday. Today when I turned my phone ringer on, I noticed several missed calls from the doctor at the local Indian hospital here. He asked me to come in (uh oh) and here’s what he showed me…

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There it is (underlined). I have tested positive for typhoid fever. Apparently I managed to nip it in the bud with antibiotics before it could have been fatal.

Typhoid is spread by food or water contaminated with human feces. I could have avoided this with a simple vaccination but I somehow never managed to get it thinking I was going to a developed nation. Hah! Malaysia has a veneer of being more developed than it really is. It is a very, very multicultural society with a huge influx of unskilled foreign workers staffing the bars and restaurants. We don’t know what the hygienic practices are in their homeland but whatever it is, it has translated to my contracting food poisoning 4 times in a year, one of which could have taken my life.

typhoid-map

IN ALL THE YEARS of traveling in Thailand, I’ve never been sick and I was doing lots of adventurous eating at street stalls there…something that is unadvisable in Malaysia. So one has to conclude that since they really don’t have much foreign labor in Thailand and it’s the Thai mama in the kitchen or at the street side wok, that over a lifetime she has figured out how to cook and not kill the tourists. But here in Malaysia, typhoid is considered “strongly endemic” (red) according the Wikipedia map above. The food and beverage workers in Malaysia are mostly Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indonesian, Filipino and Indian immigrants. And those countries don’t have a great reputation when it comes to food cleanliness.

Boil it, cook it, peel it, or FORGET IT!

Click here for a quick overview of typhoid fever, how not get it, and how to treat it if you do. First, get vaccinated! But since that’s only partially effective, I also recommend always carrying with you a supply of Ciprofloxacin which you can buy cheap over the counter in Southeast Asia. Because I treated my diarrhea early with Cipro, I managed to avoid the worst of typhoid, not even knowing that’s what I had. Now I just have the decimation of my intestinal flora to deal with, which explains the bloating.

My other advice: avoid eating out in Malaysia. Just cook for yourself here as you cannot count on even an expensive restaurant to practice proper hygiene. If you do eat out, beware of restaurants (no matter where they are or how fancy they are) whose staff speaks no English or don’t seem to know what they’re doing. Lots of staff mingling around with nothing to do translates into a lot of hands touching your food and you are increasing your odds of something going wrong. If a server can’t answer a simple question about the menu, leave!

Malaysians speak English and are more likely to know about good hygiene than the wild card of foreigner workers who might have just arrived and received no training at all. An established Chinese restaurant staffed by a Chinese family is likely a safe bet. A big name Indian restaurant with staff who speak English is probably a safe bet also. A restaurant with all foreign staff is a gamble. Street food is risky and avoid the mixed rice (buffet) restaurants with trays of food sitting out. It may look tempting, but flies can and do walk on feces and then on that food…and in tropical heat, bacteria grows fast. So eat in established places, eat indoors, eat freshly cooked food. It’s the same advice I’d give about anywhere in the developing world, but seeing the numbers of Lamborghinis and Bentleys on the streets here in KL, I guess I forgot that it’s still a developing nation…and those people have domestic servants who cook for them.

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Chuan wrote to me that he was angry about this — not at me — but at what’s happened to his country that this should happen and he could have lost his boyfriend over someone’s carelessness in the kitchen. He isn’t the only one to express this to me. A number of Malaysians have said to me that they feel the country’s huge influx of foreign workers has deteriorated the quality of life and standard of living. This is not the Malaysia they grew up with.

I’m reluctant to blame the workers themselves, they are poor immigrants taking advantage of a financial opportunity that has been made available to them. But they have no investment in Malaysia — they are here for a brief period to make as much money as possible and then go back home. That circumstance doesn’t breed excellence or pride in one’s work and as I’ve found out, it does breed germs — the unintended consequences of being a mercenary in a place that wants a cheap labour source. As one Malaysian-Indian friend said, “Our hardware may appear developed but the software is still behind.”

Posted by: facetothewind | June 23, 2015

Surviving Penang and Pai

Offering myself a toast at the pool for having survived my recent holiday…

Kuala Lumpur cocktail

Ever have one of those trips that when you get back, you feel like you should be awarded some sort of medal for making it back alive? I can’t say that EVERYTHING went wrong on this trip, but a lot did, especially early on. Chuan and I drove to Penang on a work trip (for him). On the way we stopped at a roadside food court and I got, guess what? Food poisoning. Wehoo, again. This is the 3rd time in Malaysia in less than a year, and the 4th, if I count poisoning myself with the kukui nuts. It was, after all food, and it was poison.

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Dianna from Pai arrived in Penang and on her 2nd day out she got very ill with mono. We’re not quite sure how THAT happened but it did. Here she is on the plane back. Sick and tired, and sick and tired of Air Asia and the yackity people aboard the flying kampung. Considering the MERS scare and the fever checkers in the airport, I’d say she was lucky to be flying.

Air Asia

To add to my diarrhea, I also picked up a common cold virus on this flight with the requisite cough. So my cough was back in full swing after 5 weeks of it since Lang Tengah. Then I took off for Pai from Chiang Mai. The 12 seater plane is always a novel thing, getting to watch the pilots do their thing.

Kan Air Pai

Here’s me waiting for the staff of the guesthouse to pick me up. They were late enough that by the time they arrived, all the Chinese selfie and wefies had left. I waited and waited without a sim card. Finally they showed up.

Kan Air

Then there was the heatwave. Or was it just the normal summer for northern Thailand? Anyway, 38.9 C (below) translates to 102 F. Add in considerable humidity and the lack of widespread air conditioning, I’d say it’s a miracle in Pai that people don’t just keel over dead from the heat like they would if they had that kind of weather in Paris, for example.

heat wave Pai

I ended up sharing my bungalow with a notoriously nocturnal tokay gecko in the roof rafters by my door. Tokays are adorable but if you’ve ever heard them sing, you might think less cuddly thoughts. You can click here and hear what it sounds like. It’s something like a little “Ahem, I’m about to sing for you and destroy your sleep.” And then it earns its name by yelling TOKAY!! TOKAY!! TOKAY!! about 5 times and then it goes silent. For 20 minutes. And then it starts again. ALL NIGHT LONG. But it has some sort of weird otherwordly quality to the sound as if it is being amplified through an old plastic sound system. I asked the owner of the Pairadise Guesthouse to move the little guy and they said they would. But they didn’t. I tried to nap all day but they were doing low season construction on a number of bungalows.

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So for 3 nights a tokay lizard sang me awake and saws and hammers kept me up all day until I finally changed guesthouses. I moved to the funky good vibes of Ing Doi Guesthouse to get some much needed sleep.

Ing Doi guest house Pai Thailand

And then the monsoons came. I was in one of those quaint little grass shacks with the thatched roofs when the rain began dripping on my face, bed, and laptop, just as I was about to have my first night’s sleep…on day 4. I finally just let myself have a very pissy American shit fit. I started yelling and screaming so hard, kicking the mattress like I was trying to swim ashore from a sinking ship. I think I may have sharted some diarrhea at that point. But go ahead Gilmore, you’re in the middle of nowhere and no one is gonna hear you, gurl. So, I moved the bed, did a double dose of Benadryl, covered my computer with towels and woke up the next morning hungover and wrung out.

Well, all things come to pass and so did this. Jake the owner came and fixed the roof and thank god there was no serenading serpent.

Now the good part of the trip.

After a couple nights of sleep, a fantastic massage from the local lady boy May, some wonderfully delicious food from Om Garden, some morning swims with Mark, my cough broke. It just stopped. I put myself on cipro to take care of the diarrhea and lo and behold I was starting to have a good trip!

Om Garden Carrot cake Pai

Here’s some food porn for you. Above is the legendary carrot cake of Om Garden Cafe in Pai. It truly is a religious experience and the creation of the fabulous Anon. You just have no idea if you’ve never tried it. I hear his secret is pineapple in the batter.

Fruit Factory Pai

And above is the amazingly wonderful, creamy and tangy passionfruit ice cream pie from the Fruit Factory. The mint on top is a wonderful touch.

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Here’s Anon and Mark (from Om Garden) on their new piece of land in the hills. The soil is a gorgeous orange and the land has fantastic panoramic views. Anon gets out his buckets and fetches water from the pond to water the trees they’ve planted.

Art in Chai Pai Thailand

Daytime in the summer in Pai was spent in my bungalow with a wet towel and a fan trying to stay cool. Late afternoon, it’s off to Fluid, the farang party pool for a swim and some skin-on potato wedges.

Then nighttime, it’s off to the walking street food carts or to catch an open mic performance at one of the many cafés like Art in Chai (above). Pai has such a good feeling to it — friendly people, extraordinarily good food, rice paddies, and mountain views. And it’s all walkable, which coming from Kuala Lumpur, is such a special treat!

Pai Thailand walking street

Here’s the video of the trip, which goes all the way back to Chuan playing piano in KL and a trip with Mark and Anon to Malacca and then progresses from there to Penang and Pai. Enjoy…

A couple other things…

Rats Kuala Lumpur

Just in case you thought I made it up about the rats in KL, see the above article. Note that my local Malay market, Chow Kit, is mentioned. So, I designed a t-shirt that I’m going to get printed up and proudly wear…

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What do you think?

AND, a bonus photo montage of the last few weeks: Malacca, Penang, and Pai. Click to enlarge and advance with your arrow keys, or hover over to see the captions…

Posted by: facetothewind | June 1, 2015

I’m All About the Mall

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A Survivor’s Guide to Malaysia

I guess I’ve grown up a bit in the near year that I’ve been in Malaysia. Maybe now I’m what you would called a seasoned expat. At some degree of personal expense, I now know what one has to do to survive in Southeast Asia. You can’t come here as I did with an expectation that it’s the West but just populated with smooth skinned, black-haired people. Oh no. It’s an entirely different world and way of life. Following is my list of what you have to do to survive.

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1. Surrender to the Mall.

We don’t call it “MallAsia” for nothing. Just do it. Surrender now. Step up to the entrance, let that glass door slide open and welcome you into its polished floor and air-conditioned interior. In the U.S., the shopping mall may be your last resort but in Malaysia, malls serve a multitude of purposes. They aren’t just for buying a pair of shoes. They are the town square where you go to people watch, to eat, to buy groceries, to sip a cup of coffee. And you get to do it all in a rat-free and smoke-free environment. It is perhaps the ONLY place in Malaysia where you can’t drive a motorcycle.

When I first arrived I refused to go to the malls unless it was to be used as a shortcut to someplace else. After having my boyfriend smacked in the face by a homophobic gang, after many shouting and pointing matches with uncivilized car and motorcycle drivers, after watching rats jump up on the hawker food stall, I’ve come to realize that the outdoors simply isn’t your friend here. You’re better off tucked inside the climate controlled shopping mall with CCTV and a team of fearless Nepalese security guards watching over your every move.

Previously in order to get groceries, I had to venture out along the filthy Gombak River, stepping over the garbage, past the aggressive transgender prostitutes making smooching noises and following me. I had to wait at the corner with the suggestion of a traffic light. Then when the light turns red and about 40% of the vehicles stop, I would boldly shove off the curb toward the other side with my right hand put out in a “talk to the hand” gesture which remarkably does stop traffic. I would walk past the legions of shop vendors giving stink eye to the only white guy brave enough to venture into Chow Kit. I would walk past the painful shrieking of a chicken getting its throat cut and thrown into a barrel to bleed out, wiggle through the cars stuck in a jam and inhale a few pounds of volatile organic compounds at the entrance to the decapitated goats market. I would watch the prices jump up as my white skin moved through the market stalls.

Going to buy a pineapple was an all day affair. It was about an hour outside and the rest of the day recovering from the assault on my senses. I had to come home, pour a nice big cocktail, clutch a teddy bear, and look at pictures of butterflies and bluebirds on Google Images.

And then one day something happened. A shopping mall opened up next to my apartment building and I was introduced to the concept of the modern Malaysian grocery store in the basement. All the malls have them. The prices are fixed and so my white skin doesn’t get me the reverse discount. There aren’t 40 goats heads bleeding all over the floor with flies laying maggots on them. No one gives me stink eye. And it doesn’t smell like rotting dumpsters. A grocery store in a mall is respite from the stinky reality of street side Malaysia.

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So I have graduated from the Kuala Lumpur School of Hard Knocks after a year of hard time at the Malay and Chinese markets. Now I shop listening to Muzak and enjoy watching someone with a dust mop gliding over the shiny white floors. And you know what? The prices aren’t much more or sometimes less when I factor in the “white tax” that was added on at the open air market. Malaysians figured this out long ago but no, it was I who thought I should have the “authentic Malaysian experience” of shopping in the outdoor markets. I have surrendered to the mall and I’m better for it.

Sidewalk is really a sidepark.

2. Just don’t walk anywhere.

Just don’t do it. If you brave the streets, you will fall into a hole and rats will eat your face, or worse you’ll get run over by some creepy uncle on his motorcycle on the sidewalk. Or someone will snatch your purse. And you have to smell things like food stalls cooking with balacan (fermented shrimp paste). Or you have to walk past an overflowing dumpster (which is redundant to say because they’re all overflowing) which smells something like spaghetti vomit. You must realize that in Southeast Asia, as a pedestrian, you are automatically a loser and a moving target worthy of being run over. In the West, if you put your toe into a crosswalk, drivers will stop and wave politely as you pass in front of them. They don’t wish to face the ire of police and the judicial system which will strike you down and leave you without a driving license should you ever, ever hit a pedestrian or even run a red light. And so to survive here, I’ve had to hang my head and my pedestrian pride. We walkers and cyclists in the West do so to save fuel or because it’s good for your health. But here it’s the mark of poverty to be outside a car, even if that car is stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

If I am to use a sidewalk (usually shared with parked cars and motorbikes) I must walk out the door as one walks to his execution, handcuffed and defeated and knowing that the last meal I ate may indeed be my last meal. But better yet, just don’t walk. Malaysians don’t walk and for good reason. They would drive from the sofa to the fridge if they could and I’m sure someone indeed does. Thirty or 40 years ago, people in Southeast Asia rode bicycles and took the ox cart to the market. They are not about to go back to that hell! If you are not a car owner in Southeast Asia, you’re clearly retarded.

This is San Francisco. If you live in Asia, just strike this from your mind. You will never enjoy a car free crosswalk full observance of a red light. Just forget about this, keep your head down and accept your fate as a pedestrian.

This is San Francisco. Just strike this from your mind. In Malaysia, you will never enjoy a car free crosswalk or full observance of a red light. Just forget about this, keep your head down and accept your fate as a pedestrian.

3. Stop caring about the environment.

Southeast Asians must know that the environment is a goner because they don’t waste their efforts trying to preserve it. They’re smart and practical people. Why kick a dead body, right? It’s dead! So don’t waste your effort trying to re-use your plastic bag at the store. They will put your items in a new bag and then put that in the old one you’ve handed them. And then they will put a PAID sticker on it so you can’t reuse any of them. They don’t get the concept of too much plastic waste. It simply doesn’t register.

Don’t tell someone to turn off their vehicle while waiting in front of the hotel or reading the paper or napping in a parking garage with the engine running, fouling the air. Don’t try to lecture people on why they shouldn’t throw their garbage in the river. It’s futile. You as the Little Goody Two Shoes from the West will drive yourself mad and make a lot of enemies. Just accept that the environment here is ruined and they don’t care so why should you? The rivers are in fact very useful and handy garbage conveyor belts. They take the garbage somewhere else which is really what it’s all about — out of sight, out of mind. And the air is what magically blows your exhaust somewhere else so that it’s no longer your problem. Before I leave Malaysia, I will have to try throwing my garbage into the river just to feel how liberating it must be.

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4. Do not waste your time with common courtesies. 

Don’t smile or say hello or hold a door open for anyone. If you do, they will instantly think of you as here to serve them and therefore unworthy of gratitude. No such thing as a thank you will ever be expressed. The exception is with the very rare sighting of a Japanese tourist who will bow and Sank You and hush their children in the elevator. Malaysians will jam the close button on the elevator before you’ve even gotten through the doors and their kids will be riotously pressing all the buttons and screaming. Why? Because everyone in Malaysia is in a big fat hurry because they’re important people and we must recognize and respect this. Remember, a couple generations ago they were doing uncivilized things like riding bicycles and eating off of banana leaves and we don’t want to get in the way of their progress as a nation. This is a forward thinking nation on the move toward being “Fully Developed by 2020.” Besides, smiling and being friendly made me stand out as the weird American and now I just want to blend in. I want to be a forward thinking Malaysian instead of some pesky polite guy with old fashioned manners.

This says it all about Malaysia. Little regard for law or decency - it's every man for himself.

5. Think of yourself only and don’t follow the rules.

When I arrived in KL, I found myself always at odds with people over things like spitting in public, or smoking in non-smoking places, or pushing onto a train before people got off. And now I realize how much freedom this culture has to just do what you want without regard for others. The rule of the land is that rules are only suggestions and you should follow them only if it’s convenient for you to do so. And if you break a rule and get caught, just throw a few Ringgit at the situation and buy yourself out of trouble.

So when you’re annoyed with the traffic jam, feel free to just drive up on the sidewalk. When you need a parking space and there are none to be had, just wedge your car in between a couple of others and head off without the slightest bit of guilt that you may have blocked their egress. Guilt or shame for such things are wasted emotions here. Just as is integrity — cheating and bribery is a way of life. So you might as well try a little cheating yourself. It’s liberating. You’ll feel right at home. Take what you can. Take it all in fact. If you find a couple of free parking spaces, why not take both of them so you have extra room to load your groceries? It’s amazing how much support there is for this kind of behavior, so why be righteous and do the “right” thing? Just help yourself because if you don’t someone else surely will and you might as well be the better for having taken, pushed, and wedged yourself in. You can rest knowing that no one is going to scold you for your selfishness here. And don’t even say, “Oh it’s sad that people act like this.” That’s holding Malaysia to a higher standard which is a waste of your time, chump. It’s not sad, it’s just what is.

Malaysian neo-Nazi or fashion victim? Don't ask because

Malaysian neo-Nazi or fashion victim?

6. If you see something, don’t say something.

One night while shopping along Petaling Street in KL, Chuan and I came across a Chinese family selling t-shirts emblazoned with swastikas (I know the difference between the Buddhist and Nazi symbology and these were unmistakably the Nazi variety). I walked past their stall and the swastikas began burning into my brain until I stopped and told Chu that I had to go back and voice my concerns. He stood by as I scolded the vendors telling them that they should not be selling t-shirts representing genocide and hatred. We got into a heated argument and the woman, man, and son all told me, “This is Malaysia, we can do whatever we want. Go to hell. Fuck you. Go back to your country!” That might be the point where I gave up trying to be ethical. An entire family of Chinese standing by their decision to promote racism and evil. They’re not even Muslim — what vested interest do they have in promulgating such imagery? The answer of course is to make a buck without concern for the repercussions or greater meaning. And that in essence the ethos of most of Asia.

All this to say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I do now as the Malaysians do — just think of myself. Am I tainted by my experience here? No. I’d just say I’m more culturally appropriate. And this has strangely made me a happier person. It was a lonely walk on the high road all the time, picking up the trash Malaysians throw down, literally and figuratively. It’s tough being Glinda the good witch when everyone else is having fun being the flying monkeys. In short, if they do something, why shouldn’t you as well? And if they don’t do something why should you? It’s their country and anything else would be deviant and disrespectful of all that they have created. It might even be considered arrogant that we in the West know better how to run their country than they do. And who wants to be arrogant?

We’ll see how much Malaysia has progressed by 2020. But with any luck, I’ll be watching from afar.

Posted by: facetothewind | May 12, 2015

The Components of Joy – Our Retreat to Lang Tengah Island

Sari Pacifica Lang Tengah

After so many postings about how miserable I’ve been in Kuala Lumpur, you might be wondering, “Hey Dave, what does it take to please you?” The answer though simple to enumerate is a bit harder to assemble all in one place.

  1. Quiet
  2. Beautiful surroundings
  3. Good conversation
  4. Good food
  5. Decent people

This last weekend in Lang Tengah Island, Chuan and I found nearly all the above. Food wasn’t so great, but it wasn’t dog food either. They seem to be doing their best considering they’re so far from the mainland which on a good day isn’t a reliable source of decent ingredients. So we kind of ate the same basic food for a few days which didn’t kill us. We were there for the respite and the beautiful setting.

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Lang Tengah is a small island that if there were a road you could walk the perimeter in about a half hour. There are 3 functioning “resorts” on it and one defunct. We spent 3 nights at Sari Pacifica there after a quick flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu, then a long taxi ride, and finally a fairly long speedboat ride.

Click on all photos to enlarge…

Lang Tengah 2

Everything was nearly picture-perfect with a few environmental transgressions. The island in the South China Sea off the northeast coast of Malaysia is largely undiscovered (but not for long) and was wonderfully quiet and beautiful. There was a minimal amount of rubbish on the powdery white beaches, though Chuan and I did make a point of picking up plastic bottles every day only to find out that they burn the plastic in the evening. Asia!! Wake the @#$% up!! Why are you poisoning your own habitat? We were told the so-called recycler would charge the hotels to come and collect the bottles and then take them out to sea and dump them. So they stopped that and now just burn the plastics which triggered a lung infection which I am now nursing back in smoggy KL.

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Anyway. Other than THAT, it was pretty ideal. The large groups of mainland Chinese tourists who now invade the world’s tourist destinations have already discovered the resort down the beach so we witnessed that noisy scene on our after-dinner walks. Glad we weren’t staying there listening to the karaoke and bad rooftop bar music. From our resort it was a very distant mumble. For the record, I don’t hate the Chinese…my boyfriend is Malaysian-Chinese. I simply don’t enjoy any large group of tourists who descend upon a place in a loud and uncivilized way. It used to be the ugly American tourists arrogantly plying the planet in their white sneakers and golf shirts. But we are now wildly upstaged by the throngs of goofily dressed Chinese, though interestingly, they don’t really come to KL. KL only seems to attract Muslim tourists from the Middle East which is a whole other deal. Same same but different. Alas, I digress.

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Anyway, on a walk one afternoon we discovered deep in the jungle, a scruffy and bright-eyed group of heroes come to the island (mostly from England and Australia) to protect the endangered green sea turtles from poachers and predators. It’s called the Tengah Island Turtle Watch. Here volunteers pay to spend a week or a month sleeping under the palm trees in a makeshift camp taking 24-7 shifts to watch for mama turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. They patrol the beach and move the eggs should she lay them in front of an unprotected cove frequented by the local poacher who has a taste for turtle eggs. They log and monitor the turtles’ laying sites and on occasion are treated to a midnight escape of dozens of little 4-legged friends scurrying toward the water where they face 1-in-1,000 odds of surviving to adulthood.

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Check out their Facebook page and consider making a donation or joining them for a period of turtle patrolling on this idyllic island. I did note that the group had only one Asian among them. Why isn’t environmental conservation more of a priority in Asia? Perhaps they feel it’s a lost cause and that a turtle egg omelet is better knowing how precious and rare it has become.

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The rest of the time we spent snorkeling and doing nothing. Chuan worked on his tan. I nibbled on my books between naps. Snorkeling was fantastic. We saw a bluespotted stingray just watching us overhead. We were surrounded by lots of triggerfish and parrotfish and all sorts of other little bright blue and yellow fishes. Nature is so fascinating how it endows these sea creatures with such fanciful bodies.

Snorkeling for me is like flying without the need for an airplane. Gliding over mountains of rocks and looking deep into valleys full of fish darting in and out, it’s like being a bird in an aquamarine world. Chuan started out the trip frightened of the deep water. “Scared scared,” he would repeat tapping the center of his chest. Over the 3 days of snorkeling holding my hand, he began to swim out to the deeper water where the turquoise turns to cobalt blue and where the bigger fish live. I was proud of how brave he had become, though he wouldn’t accompany me out to a distant buoy where nurse and blacktip sharks were rumored to live. So I swam out alone (and found nothing) respecting my boyfriend’s limits and trusting his own instincts.

Watch the video and you can see a giant monitor lizard, some pretty scary spiders, and even go underwater with us. And I know it’s Enya singing about the Caribbean but hey, try finding a song about swimming in the South China Sea…

Click on a photo and use your arrow key to advance…

So on the final day I was blissed out from sun, sand, and solitude. As we stepped aboard the water taxi, the deckhand tossed his cigarette into the shimmering blue water and then I heard a little tap on the water. Kind of a hollow tap. It was the sound of someone’s soda can being tossed off the back of the boat to join the cigarette butt for a short journey ashore where someone would either step over it or haul it to the trash where it would ultimately be tossed out back behind the hotel. Welcome back to reality. If Asia is any measure of the planet’s health, this big blue jewel is doomed.

I rode off in the speedboat, car, and jet thinking about that soda can and cigarette bobbing in our wake…the wake generated from an engine spilling motor oil into the sea and dispensing its carbon emissions for 4 passengers. And how much jet fuel did it take to propel my body into the air all the way to KL? We’re all complicit in this big mess. I’m glad that I got to see a few colorful fish, some remaining blue coral, and swim alongside a majestic green sea turtle while I still can. If the convenience of the sea as a trash bin and a turtle scramble is more important than a little self restraint, then I fear that future generations will not be so lucky.

I returned to KL with a suitcase packed with crushed plastic bottles to hand over to my building’s renegade recyclers. I do what I can. I once saw the Dalai Lama speak at the University of California, Berkeley. Someone asked him what we can do about the deteriorating state of the world. He said overpopulation is to blame and what we need is more monks and nuns. I thought, yah, and gay people. But he also said, “If you want to change the world, look in your own backyard.”

Yes! Tell me what you’re doing in your own backyard.

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Next stop: Malacca and then Pai, Thailand.

Posted by: facetothewind | May 3, 2015

Bumming Around Kuala Lumpur

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While Asia works my last nerve, I’m doing my best to honor my relationship and stick it out here by finding little things that give me some small sense of pleasure like a fragrant frangipani flower tucked behind my ear…that then draws the scornful gaze of homophobic Malaysians. It’s a rare day when my attempt to find some elegance in this overpopulated, stinky city doesn’t end in a defeated return to the apartment, vanquished by the assault.

Case in point. I went shopping the other day and saw macadamia nuts for cheap! Priced at 5.79 ringgit per package and much in need of a little nibbly indulgence, I bought them. My stomach grumbled all the way home where I couldn’t wait to rip open the package and crunch my way into monounsaturated bliss while the air conditioner dried out my sweaty clothes. Well.

I washed one nut (because you can’t trust packaged food items here not to have had rats walking and peeing all over them before they got semi-sealed and put on the shelf). In fact, the almonds I usually buy have little teeth marks in them that I assure you are not from the tines of some scooping fork at the nut warehouse. Anyway, I bit into my “macadamia nut” and it turned out not to be what I thought it was though not unpleasant tasting. Could they be large hazel nuts? I was curious what they were since the package was unlabeled and so cheap. They must be locally produced. So I texted a picture to Chuan, my font of local food wisdom, for a quick identification…

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He wrote back that he didn’t know what they were called but they were not really eating nuts per se, but rather are used to flavor a curry. To me that meant they’re still edible even if not for the purpose of snacking. I decided to roast them and salt them. After about 20 minutes, I pulled them out of the oven and nibbled one. Tasty. Let me have a few more. OK, not bad. Let me have a small handful. That’s when my stomach started to tighten and churn. The churning quickly led to cramps and then I started feeling feverish. Oh dear. I texted Hubby telling him that I wasn’t feeling well after eating the mystery nuts.

He went on the web and did some research and within a few minutes he wrote back that the nuts were called “candlenuts” (aka kukui nuts) and are poisonous when eaten raw. Oh dear! My condition worsened as I grew pale and started feeling dizzy. To distract myself, I tried to watch a documentary on the BBC called Filthy Cities. Up came scenes of foul tannery waste and beheaded bodies being chucked around revolutionary Paris. All too familiar to my life in KL, this was not helping with my burgeoning nausea.

I called Chuan and burst into tears that I had poisoned myself and would soon be dying. I felt so sad that I was going to die alone in the apartment — a total disappointment to my boyfriend for not having been more prudent about food choices in a foreign country. If I was going to poison myself, I wanted it to be an intentional act and with something more historic like hemlock or something more dignified like Roxanol with a nice bottle of Malbec. There would be nothing dignified about finding me dead in a pile of my own vomit.

I quickly looked up candlenuts on the Internet adding the keyword: “fatal.” Although toxic, nothing came up about it being fatal, and the antidote was simple: coconut water. It was starting to seem like some sort of local witchdoctor wisdom and that I might have to toss some virgin into a volcano, chant a few wanga wangas, drink the pure water from a young coconut and then my health would be restored.

Chuan is nothing if not an efficient problem solver. I’m not kidding — within 20 minutes he had left his mother’s apartment, gone to the grocery store, wrangled up some fresh coconuts and was turning the lock on the door to find me prostrated in front of the toilet bowl with an RGB palette of spew coming out all my orifices. I sat on the rug in front of the bowl feeling sort of proud for having heaved out all the nuts plus my lovely mung bean stew with it. Chuan tore open a coconut and I gulped it down and remarkably (and without virgins in a volcano) the clouds in my stomach parted and the sun came out again. Birds were singing and the color returned to my face. I was cured and just needed to get the mung beans and carrots washed out of my nose. Whoa, what a night! My sweet hubby saved me again from the perils of Malaysia.

And that in essence, is Chuan’s role in my life: chief problem solver and path sweeper — my midwife to Malaysia. So onward we go into the year long wait to get the hell outta here…together. He goes to work and I stay home getting into trouble with poison nuts. On the weekends we have little outings to try and add some joy to the mix. I feel a book coming on. My year in KHell or how I found love in the wrong place.

Watch the video that starts out in Malacca on one of my bi-monthly escapes from KL. There’s some little video snapshots of Malaysian life as seen through my lens…

And here’s the month in photos:

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Relax FAIL. A nice relaxing day at the waterfall with a million people and their garbage which I run around grumbling about as I pick it up. Malaysians don’t understand why the foreigner is collecting trash, but if I don’t do it, no one will. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

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The 5th floor pool is much more serene than the sky pool.

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A visit to the Malaysian Philharmonic to see a Japanese flower arranger doing his giant arrangements on stage to chamber music. The MPO is an affordable and refreshing break from the surrounding chaos. The hall itself is spectacular with incredible acoustics…so good I could hear the Chinese guy in the top floor balcony blowing his nose every 5 seconds for the whole first half.

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CLICK TO ENLARGE PANORAMA. We seem to be back in monsoon season again much to my delight. I find the thunderstorms with stunning lightning shows endless entertainment from the perch of the 30th floor living room.

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A side of bacon — the left side — in Malacca.

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Finally a great restaurant!!! Yay!! It’s called Fatto a mano. So rare to have great service, great food and a nice atmosphere.

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Chuan sold the Kenari, the love mobile. We had our first date in this little car, bouncing cheerfully around the rims of giant potholes, secretly holding hands and hoping no police would spot us. Now he has the consummate Auntie Mobile — a Toyota Camry.

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Dim sum with the outlaws from left to right: Chuan, his grandfather, mother and grandmother. Not much English is spoken at the table. In fact, not much of anything is spoken. The food is good, especially the radish cakes!

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The best food in KL is right out of my own kitchen. Here I made fresh pineapple salsa served with shredded cabbage on an aged cheddar quesadilla. Yummm!

Goodnight stinky air. Goodnight traffic noises everywhere. Goodnight moon. Goodnight Malaysia...leaving soon.

Goodnight KL, goodnight foul air. Goodnight traffic noises everywhere. Goodnight moon. Goodnight Malaysia…leaving soon.

Posted by: facetothewind | April 13, 2015

Full Circle

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I seem to be having a mental block about blogging these days. It kind of came over me now that I’m back in Kuala Lumpur. I just found myself dragging to do my post-US roundup of photos and stories.

You see, I blog for a few reasons:

  1. It breaks my own isolation by sharing what’s going on inside with the outside world. You get to witness my life as I’m playing it out in the far corners of the planet and as a result I feel you’re nearer.
  2. It’s a way to showcase my meager talents in photography and writing with my even meager-er number of subscribers. Your kind words make me smile and I like sharing this crazy journey with an avid reader/viewer.
  3. It’s a way to resolve something for myself…after blogging, some seemingly intractable problem has now been examined and aired out like old sweaters in the attic. It freshens things up a bit for me and allows me to make some forward movement in my life.

Let’s look at #3. What’s currently on my table to resolve is huge and perhaps so large that I’ve just been avoiding picking it apart. Here’s what’s going on:

While I fell in love with the most wonderful guy in Malaysia, I have come to really dislike the place where the romance is currently being staged. I question what good is going to come of this daring adventure in love. What’s the future for us born of two different nations and cultures? He’s the Chinese son of a widowed cancer-survivor mother. He’s unlikely to ever leave his mother alone for long. And I can’t stand being a prisoner in my cushy apartment for much longer. I promised I would give Chuan a year to figure something out with his job. In that year I’ll spend a lot of time in airports avoiding being in KL. But what happens at the end of that year if he isn’t ready to leave with me? And what happens if I can’t even limp across the finish line? What if well before a year’s deadline I run screaming to a more civilized place? And what about my negativity about the homeland of my boyfriend? It can’t be very pleasant for him to witness my disenchantment. I worry my poo colored glasses will poison our relationship and then I will leave empty-handed. It’s all troubling — what I’ve gotten us both into. We are well beyond the point of no return and any action taken now is going to leave someone hurt: him (and me) or his mother. The mere thought of all this has left me sobbing in his arms a few times lately. I promised him I wouldn’t leave him alone here but if he won’t come with me when I’m ready (and I’m ready), then does my honor come at the expense of my daily happiness?

I hear myself repeating the line from the film Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything works out in the end and if it hasn’t worked out, then it isn’t the end.” A healthy amount of faith is necessary to abide by that line which, let’s face it, aren’t the prescriptive words of some great guru. They are the words of Hollywood written to make you feel good about your station in life, however limited and riddled with problems it may be. And just between you and me, I simply don’t trust that things will all work out. Tell that line right now to all the people in Yemen or Syria or South Sudan. For them it is the end and it hasn’t worked out. In the words of poet David Whyte, “I have no faith myself. I refuse it even the smallest entry.”

Add to all this my slowly dwindling financial situation: my fast-becoming-worthless Hawaii house, and the limited cachet of a 51 year old self-styled artist lacking in a big fat pension plan. It is the life of a so-called “free spirit” careening into the unglamorous reality of being financially marooned in my old age. I am a person who thrives on simplicity and right now, managing 2 aging homes from afar (homes that have not appreciated a dime in 10 years) while trying to cope with the one I’m in at the moment in KL — it feels like I am juggling so many balls that I may drop them all at once.

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Airports where it seems I spend most of my life.

But the trip to the U.S. was an interesting one. It was the first time I went to my home country as a tourist — in and out in a short time, a roundtrip ticket that originated in a foreign country. America seemed, after nearly a year away, like a breath of fresh air, a big juicy bite of good food, a tingling glug of rich, amber beer. It was a month of peace and quiet, wide cycling lanes, flowering trees, and cool nights. And honestly, at the end of my trip, I was not ready to come back to Malaysia. Nothing about Malaysia feels like home. From the ever-alienating-to-an-atheist call to prayer, to the pedestrian unfriendly streets, to the searing heat and humidity, to the unhappy faces of countless unfortunate migrant workers plying the streets looking for work. From the disappointing food options, to the bad (and expensive) beer and wine. From the traffic-choked streets and motorcycle clogged sidewalks to the buzzing maze of shopping malls and oven-like parking garages I get lost in — it feels like I’m wandering endlessly through some underworld with rats scurrying at my feet. Nothing about this place feels like a yes. Nothing except easy medical care and Chuan, who offers up his undying love and embracing arms to me.

I want to run away with Chuan and fortunately we now have the option of marriage in the U.S. with a green card at the end of the process. But how will he take to America if he chooses to do that? How will he be when separated from his friends and family and land of familiarity? Will we just be turning the tables and then he’ll be sitting at my home in the desert, isolated and longing for some good fish balls and curry noodles? There is a price to be paid for our global existence. It is the fallout of families and lovers broken apart for long periods. Or forever. It is the cultural isolation we find in our new homes. It is Chinese filial piety versus American independence. It is me fumbling with chopsticks and he wondering why we eat blue cheese. It is the sting of glass ceilings — of always being the outsider, always the foreigner. It is the distance between people both measurable and immeasurable.

Does it work to one day declare yourself an expat and leave your home country knowing that you are just a click away from bailing on your ideals and running back only to concede failure? Or is life just one big journey with no beginning and no end? And if it hasn’t worked out, then maybe it isn’t the end and you can choose a new location if you’re one of the few lucky people to be able to do that. I am one of those blessed (and admittedly cursed) people with the means and passport to roam freely about the planet. Recreation for me is going on KAYAK and searching for flights to this place and that place, plotting my exit. I want to punch in my destination as “home” and see where that gets me.

Touch down KL.

Touch down Hong Kong on the way to KL.

Anyway, this Pandora’s box of self-inflicted issues to resolve is why I’ve not blogged since I landed back in Malaysia. It seems I’m in need of a direction, a game plan, and some courage to fight for it. Or to simply surrender. I just don’t know which to do. I’ve been paralyzed to unpack my feelings about what’s going on, to take an honest look at what’s going to unravel and get ugly if I don’t do something drastic…

Like chill.
Like be grateful for the love I have.
Like remembering why I came here in the first place.

In the clearing stands a boxer
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the remainders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame
“I am leaving, I am leaving”
But the fighter still remains

— Paul Simon The Boxer

So watch the movie of my trip to America and the return to Malaysia at the end…

RETURN TO KUALA LUMPUR

Click on photos to enlarge or hover over them to see captions…

 TUCSON, ARIZONA

FORT MYERS, FLORIDA (to see the family)

Posted by: facetothewind | March 16, 2015

Inside Out

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Inside Out

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

Electric hum of suburban existence
Is as silent as this moment can be
The miracles of long travels
In less than a day
Have asked my body for a toll
That is more difficult to pay
With the passage of years
Today begs rest, yet the other buzz,
From my mind, from within,
Long lists of tedious tasks
Feels unrelenting while inside the cocoon
Of my modern domicile
‘Tis stepping into the quietude
Of the natural world
That my very cells
sense the peace
Of no effort
No where to go
Nothing to do
No one to be
Grace and gratitude
Surrounds, fills and
Bursts into ambient
Waves of purring contentment

Posted by: facetothewind | March 14, 2015

Living Between the Worlds

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Upon reflection, a life falls naturally into chapters, though at the time of the unfolding it may not be clear what the title is or even that a new chapter been opened. And every time an ocean is crossed, a new chapter begins. I’d been dreading the eventuality of a return to America, that was until Malaysia began working my last nerve. On a daily basis, Kuala Lumpur subjects me to more objectionable raw material than most Americans see in a lifetime. Everything from rats in restaurants to chickens being slaughtered in the street. And when my ears, eyes, and belly were chock full of objectionables, I began to look forward to the freshness of a return to America for clean air, clean water, clean food, unobstructed sidewalks, considerate drivers, and a few of the palatable aspects of law and order.

Nine months ago, I chose to expatriate myself from America to Malaysia. I sailed from New York across the ocean and began a slow migration across the European continent. It was a choice to relocate based almost entirely on intuition that at the end of this long journey I would be awarded the prize of a lifetime, the one thing I’ve been missing my whole life: love. I was certain I would find the man I was searching the world over for in Kuala Lumpur, and indeed I did — in the first 3 weeks!

But while I was falling in love with him, I was falling out of love with the turf on which our romance was being played. Sigh on the impossibleness of getting all you desire in one place. While I now enjoy loving companionship, we can’t go out the door without being assaulted by all that’s wrong with Kuala Lumpur from entrenched homophobia to the chaotic road conditions that threaten your life — whether you’re on foot or in a car. And sometimes when you just can’t resolve all the intractable issues you face, you just have to take a break and get a fresh perspective. Cross an ocean. Start a new chapter, the title of which is to be determined.

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My intermission from Malaysia began in the San Francisco Bay Area…a sort of half-way house for me and the one place on earth that at age 23. I was certain then that I would remain in San Francisco for the rest of my days. That all came to a close in 2001 when SF was overtaken by the high tech business and its spendy young techlings. The Bay Area being as sophisticated as it is usually doesn’t ram in your face the “4G” reasons I left the USA: Guns, God, Greed, and Gluttony. Though it does possess more than its share of good old-fashioned American greed, the other 3G’s — the hardcore reasons America is a country worth leaving — are largely absent in the Bay Area. I staved off my full immersion into the American reality for the Florida portion of this trip. (To come)

“San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.” — Paul Kantner

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I spent several days up all night recovering from heinous 16 time zone jet lag at my friend Jean’s in San Rafael. We spent the days sweetly flying kites on Muir Beach and eating American-sized portions of delicious food.

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With all this gorgeous weather and food, I found myself blissfully celebrating my citizenship in this lovely country. Being expatriated seems to have grown my love for America, especially the natural beauty. But the Bay Area is truly a bubble and a beautiful but fiendishly expensive one at that. I hear the going rate for a room in a share in a San Francisco apartment is now about $1,750 per month. It’s a nice place to visit and a great place to land after 9 months of expatiation. But I can’t see any possibility of living there unless someone left me a home in West Marin or Big Sur and a $10,000 monthly stipend to afford the price of everything.

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One afternoon, Jean and I took a sunset hike somewhere near the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, about 10 miles north of San Francisco. From there you can see both the ocean and towering skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, and even just the tippy top of the Golden Gate Bridge’s north tower. (You can click on some of these images to enlarge them.)

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After having lived in Asia which is largely overpopulated and polluted, I had a very conservative thought: if the US didn’t have such stringent visa and immigration requirements, I would not be enjoying the silence and clean air of this mountaintop. I wouldn’t be hearing the surf thousands of feet below; I’d be hearing motorcycles. I’d be stepping over piles of trash on the trail. So from the vantage point of Mt. Tam and the friendly, smart people of the Bay Area, I’d say America is a very lovable nation, indeed.

California sunset

But the bubble burst when I got to the airport on my way to Fort Myers to see my family only to find that my flight was cancelled due to fog and that I had to be re-routed through Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of famed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Milwaukee is reason enough to see America as quite leaveable. Thank you Southwest Airlines for dumping me in a place that reminded me why I left.

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Next stop: Fort Myers, Florida.

Posted by: facetothewind | February 25, 2015

Prisms of My Past Life

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Prisms of My Past Life

A poem by January Handl • photo by David Gilmore

I have been fractured
By the exquisite knife edge
Of love’s sharp blade
And all the wholeness I build,
Or march toward
Eludes me
While whispering promises
Of rest and peace.

I raise my voice in anguish
Trying to drown out
The despair’s high pitched
Keening wail
And realize my cries for help
Aren’t heard because
I haven’t released them
From my heart

What I know disappears
And I am forced to stand
In the shifting sands
Of the unknowable
Unknown

And the light
That I thought
Illuminated
My crystalline
shimmering selfhood
was actually,
always and
forever
me

Posted by: facetothewind | February 19, 2015

Random Shots in a Crowd

And the beauty of a well-cropped image

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Click to enlarge.

So it’s Chinese New Year all around the world and while Chuan is off collecting his red packets of money and eating fishy foods with aunties and uncles, I took the opportunity of a national holiday to do a little walking tour with my camera. I went to Masjid Jamek (“masjid” means mosque) here in Kuala Lumpur. I ran immediately into a fantastic photo shoot: an all male crowd of foreign workers milling about a plaza on their day off. There was not a Chinese or a red envelope among them — mostly Bangladeshi and Pakistani. I deduced this because many of them were holding hands, an acceptable expression of friendship here in Malaysia (but don’t let there be love between the men or it’s a punishable offense). Anyway, they were waiting to send money to their home countries through the money transfer stations…

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There was the odd white tourist passing through nervously. Everyone in the crowd was about 4 inches shorter than me, perfectly well-behaved, and not at all fragrant as some would expect. So I felt perfectly comfortable to just ease through the crowd with my camera snapping away at the thousands of handsome men in their Sunday best (even though it’s Thursday) their black hair all neatly coiffed as if they were going to meet some women (dream on). They weren’t the super-smiley crowd which makes ME smile. I just can’t stand when people do the little peace sign and pose for the camera.

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Click to enlarge.

I never set out with a theme in photography, I just let a theme reveal itself. Sometimes nothing surfaces at all and I go home empty-handed. But today it became clear to me that random black and white shots in the crowd with the expectation of heavy editing back at home would be the theme and so I just went with it. With the unpredictable nature of a dynamic crowd, it’s pointless to wait for the right moment ala Cartier-Bresson, whose philosophies of photography I usually follow. But today, a random shot into the crowd produces this…

Cropping a photo 1

And with post-production, this is what I present to you…

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Click to enlarge.

Random shot…

Cropping a photo 2

Cropped (still don’t like the elbow in the left, but what can I do?)…

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Click to enlarge.

This…

Cropping a photo 3

Becomes this…

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Click to enlarge.

I find that the best random shots are the ones where there’s some direct eye contact with me. And usually because I’m white and wear a fun hat, someone’s got their eyes on me. Without any eye contact with the camera, it can seem a little too disconnected.

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Click to enlarge.

But sometimes the focal point may not be someone looking at me, but rather someone central looking at someone else as in this case…

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Click to enlarge.

And here as well where there is direct eye contact with the camera but also someone looking at someone else. The viewer’s eye naturally will follow their gaze and that gives the photo a sense of drama and a possible story or two…

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Another thing is that if you shoot at a fairly low shutter speed, you’ll get a nice motion blur in the foreground and in this case it worked out because the central figure was standing still and so he’s crisp. What I ended up with was a circular motion around the central figure. You can feel the buzz of the crowd…

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Here I liked seeing the texture of the men’s hair in the sunlight as they watched a woman in a wet t-shirt at a dunking machine…

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Click to enlarge.

And this is just on the way home in front of Masjid Jamek…

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Click to enlarge.

Behind my building a guy contemplates fishing from the filthy river. Don’t do it guy, I saw someone pooping in it.

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Click to enlarge.

Happy new year to all my lovely Chinese friends and extended family. This is the 4th new year in 7 months, so no more new years until this summer.

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